Camera Architecture and UX

In general, camera has become probably the single biggest point of differentiation between smartphones at this point. As smartphones are often the only camera that most people carry on a day to day basis, the rear camera on a smartphone really cannot be a disappointment relative to the competition. While we can talk about how much a front-facing camera matters in terms of quality, it’s pretty safe to say that for photos and videos that are worth saving will be taken with the rear-facing camera.

While post-processing and a number of other factors are going to have a huge impact on the overall camera experience, the foundation that makes it possible to deliver a great camera is always going to start at the hardware.

Samsung Galaxy S Cameras
  Galaxy S6
Galaxy Note5
Galaxy S7
Front Camera 5.0MP 5.0MP
Front Camera - Sensor Samsung S5K4E6
(1.34 µm, 1/4.1")
Samsung S5K4E6
(1.34 µm, 1/4.1")
Front Camera - Focal Length 2.2mm (22mm eff) 2.1mm (21mm eff)
Front Camera - Max Aperture F/1.9 F/1.7
Rear Camera 16MP 12MP
Rear Camera - Sensor Sony IMX240
Samsung S5K2P2
(1.12 µm, 1/2.6")
Sony IMX260
Samsung S5K2L1
(1.4 µm, 1/2.6")
Rear Camera - Focal Length 4.3mm (28mm eff) 4.2mm (26mm eff)
Rear Camera - Max Aperture F/1.9 F/1.7

In the case of the Galaxy S7, Samsung has done something that I thought they’d never do, which is move backwards in resolution in order to improve pixel sensitivity. In the case of the Galaxy S7, Samsung has moved from the Sony IMX240/Samsung S5K2P2 to the Sony IMX260/Samsung S5K2L1 sensor, with a 1.4 micron pixel size relative to a 1.12 micron pixel pitch in the previous generation. This means that there’s a 56% increase in sensitivity per pixel. Assuming the same process technology, this does improve low light performance significantly. While to some extent it’s true that improved CIS (CMOS image sensor) technology can alleviate the downsides of smaller pixels, on the same technology you have to reduce your fill factor/active sensor area. The other problem is that while read noise on the sensor does reduce per pixel as you reduce pixel size, the overall sensor read noise trends upwards. This means that the region in which the CIS noise is primarily limited by shot noise is going to be smaller as you reduce pixel size. Shot noise is an unavoidable reality of existence, to the extent that even our eyes can see this “visual snow” if ambient light is sufficiently dim.

However, in the case of the Galaxy S7 I suspect that there’s more to the story, because the dual pixel AF system means that for each 1.4 micron pixel each pixel needs two photodetectors. In order to make phase detection work, there has to be sufficient spatial separation to make this system work properly, so some of the benefit of these larger pixels will inevitably be eaten up in order to enable PDAF that works in basically all lighting conditions.

The other notable change here is that the Galaxy S7 uses an even wider f/1.7 aperture. Unfortunately, in Samsung's efforts to try and make the module thinner they've made the focal length slightly shorter than before which results in an effective focal length of 26mm. This and the wider aperture could lead to compromises as light is entering the optics at a more extreme angle than before.

With these basics covered, we can move on to a discussion of the user experience. While in the past it was easy enough to just take some still shots on a tripod, a holistic view of camera quality really needs to take into account far more than just the end result. A poorly designed camera application with low resolution, low frame rate preview, improper preview aspect ratio, poor control layout, and other issues can easily make it difficult, if not impossible to get the photo that you want. These issues are thankfully getting less common, but these problems can make it almost impossible to recommend a phone for its camera, no matter how good the results are.

In the case of the Galaxy S7, the camera application is a nice upgrade over the Galaxy S6 at launch, but for the most part nothing is really different this go around. I’m not going to spend too much time here, but the short story is that I don’t think that Samsung is doing anything wrong here, and things are pretty much as good as they’re going to get.

While leaving it at that would be enough, I want to recognize some of the improvements that Samsung has implemented here. The major improvement here is that Pro mode is finally useful, as this mode now allows for adjusting auto-exposure and AF targets, in addition to EV, shutter speed, ISO, white balance with 100K granularity, and manual focus. The one notable shortfall here is that Samsung only allows 800 ISO max in manual ISO mode when the true maximum is 1250. For better or worse though, that’s the only notable problem I encountered with the camera app itself. It’s easy to think that Samsung hasn’t done anything notable here, but this is more a testament to the execution of design more than anything else.

However, before we move on to image quality testing, we can take a look at our focus and capture latency tests. For those that are unfamiliar, this is a fairly simple test designed to see how long it takes for a phone to focus and capture a scene on our standard ISO test chart in good lighting conditions, which can give a fairly good idea for best case latencies.

Camera Focus Latency (Shooting ISO 12233 Target)

Camera Shot Latency (Shooting ISO 12233 Target)

Camera Latency (Shooting ISO 12233 Target)

It’s probably not a surprise, but the Galaxy S7 is really, absurdly quick to take photos and focus. There is nothing out there that can realistically match the dual pixel AF system in the Galaxy S7, especially once you get into low light scenarios where traditional PDAF systems are overwhelmed by noise that can’t be easily canceled out. Samsung’s sheer prowess in semiconductor design and manufacture is really showing here, even in the best case.

System Performance Cont'd Still Image Performance
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  • invinciblegod - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    Apparently by your metric nothing can ever be compared to an iphone. "You can't compare a Lexus to a Mercedes, that will be BIAS!!!" The only thing annoying about this site is the complainers who have no valid arguments screaming BIAS. Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    How about when the iPhone 5s came out. Any other flagship gets 1, maybe 2 article. That day the iPhone 5s had 14 articles on it... 14 articles. That in itself shows the bias and that continues to this day, even after Anand left to go work at Apple. Reading the article above I see it clearly. Reading their iPhone reviews I see it clearly. There is an obvious reluctance to say anything negative about Apple and an obvious reluctance to say anything glowing about a product that competes with Apple. If you dont see that at Anandtech you simply arent paying attention. Reply
  • michael2k - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    15? I can only find 9 articles for the 5S spread across 5 days, and one appears a month later.

    They had a hands on, and a video of the hands on, rather than combining the two. They had their announcement article as well as an availability article; they could have combined those as well. They also had separate articles on camera, battery, and CPU that could have been combined with the review.

    That said, that isn't a sign of bias, that's a sign that Apple articles pay the bills. People read them and generate the prerequisite clicks necessary to get page impressions.
    Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    It is possible it was hte iPhone5 release date... But it was 14. I recall it, because I commented after 11 that they had 11 bloody articles already and then 3 more came afterward, all that same day. That includes the main articles and the pipeline articles. Not sure how they archive them and that isnt the point. The point is the site is clearly biased. I remember you as well m2k, you are an old timer at this site as well and a well known apple defender. You are the target market and you are right , that is where their money lies. The only thing you are not right on is the bias it shows. When the site is reluctant to say anything too heavily negative about Apple and too positive on competing products, its a bias and this site has it, and has had it for many years now even years before Anand wen to work for Apple (if that isnt a clue already). If you dont see it, you simply aren't looking. Reply
  • michael2k - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    There is something wrong with you if you think of people as with you and against you (Apple defender, Apple biased, etc). Yes, this site does favor Apple, they get a lot of coverage.

    You think it is wrong, yet the article lays out some of the reasons why they get so much coverage. Look at the CPU performance and you see that the 820 and Exynos both struggle to hit the top of the charts. Anandtech has performed multiple reviews over multiple iPhone releases to explain why that is the case; it isn't bias, it really is that Apple made a remarkable series of CPU designs.

    We also see the same thing doesn't occur in the GPU, but we did have multiple articles talk about the PowerVR because sometimes Apple did have a range topping SoC. As previously discussed, the user base reads these CPU and GPU articles.

    You can look at sales figures to see why Apple gets more attention than Samsung. In three days the iPhone 6S sold 13m units. In three months after the launch of the Galaxy S7 sold 25m units. There are really many more people reading the iPhone articles; that is the bias of the world, not the site, you're working against.
    Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    " if you think of people as with you and against you" Where did I say anything like that? I am simply pointing out a bias - not about taking sides. Like I said, if you are looking for unbiased reviews, Anandtech is no longer the site to check on. If you already like Apple and aren't looking to change, and you want in depth articles on Apple products, its a great site. If you want somewhat less than complete articles on say, Samsung products 4 months after launch, it's a good site too. Get the point? You and I are both pointing out that the site has become Apple-centric. You just like it because you are an Apple fan - not that there is anything wrong with that. ;) I do not like it becasue I am a fan of tech in general, so the site I "grew up on" has sold out to clickbait. Anandtech from 1997- (maybe) 2012 wasnt like that. It used to be about the tech. Now it's about the clicks and catering to one particular companies products. If you dont see that, then you are the new target audience and are happy with it. No worries dood. Reply
  • fanofanand - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    The bias is obvious. Josh spent several months with an iPad Pro before he could give it his review, I am not aware of him spending that kind of time with any other devices being tested. I think the Apple fans are dwindling in number, maybe people are figuring out that electronics aren't their friend, nor are the corporations that make them. I can't recall seeing anything negative said about any Apple product reviewed here since......ever. There's your bias, the implication that any product from a particular corporation is flawless. Retro I have read your comments for years and have always been entertained. Seems you don't post as often anymore :( Reply
  • retrospooty - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    Thanks... Yeah, I dont post too often because I dont come here too often anymore due to the issue being discussed. It's just not about the tech anymore its about the clicks and the money. Reply
  • akdj - Monday, July 11, 2016 - link

    You guys are hilarious.
    The extent that this crew has gone to improve the objective testing and measurements, the two part, in depth and all encompassing review of the s7/s7 (both variants; SD/Exynos) and the well written and 'time spent' using the devices put a WHOLE helluva lot more 'meat' in to the review & their conclusions.
    As an ambidextrous user of both Android and iOS, I usually skip gens of Android and trade out annually for the latest iPhone. I still have my Xoom and the first iPad. The Nexus 7 & iPad 2 as well as a Note 4 and S6 Edge, I have the 6s+ as well and I enjoy all of them as smartphones. That said, and as an owner since day one ... I have too come to the same conclusions year in and out. iOS especially when you figure in its ecosystem of apps/& cross platform development so you're able to also enjoy the experience on your tablet ...an area Android STILL hasn't figured out compared with the iPad & Surface ...as well as Apple's understanding of SoCs and performance characteristics, updates, post purchase support and resale values ...you're truly insane (doing/buying the same thing while expecting different results) with your declarations of bias and conclusions about other sites that rushed their review out four days after it dropped. Insane!
    The review clearly and objectively presents a whole lot of inarguable data and 'author time' spent with the piece they're reviewing.
    If you go back and read Apple reviews, any of them, you'll find areas of the review favoring Android implementation or design. From the display and cameras to the 'off the shelf' SoCs everyone with exception of Samsung is using to power their devices.
    Apple simply knows WTF they're doing and speaking from experience now nearing a decade using both - iOS and their dual/tri-core silicon designs, speedy memory(storage) and phenomenal memory management to keep battery longevity up as well as camera tech and understanding the whole 'package' - radios, security, durability, support and the largest library of software in history because developer monies ....how do you convince yourself the same bullshit year in and year out? Is that TechCrunch/Giz or CNet "review", in your opinion and published just hours or a couple days after release and minus the measurements and time spent somehow more 'valid' in your opinion? I honestly can't believe how the ignorance and blatant disregard for these amazing reviews you can read for free and than hide behind your goofy screen name and keyboard to bash the author who's soooo much more intelligent and knowledgeable than you, ALL of you will EVER be when it comes down to reality and mobile development

    It also seems the masses agree. Apple sold 1/2 as many 6s & + models in 72 hours as Sammy did in three months, and it was the biggest 'down quarter' Apple's had since the iPhone dropped. Same thing on the tablet front. I also own each iPad including the two sides of Pros. Anand's reviews on both are incredibly spot on.

    *I own and operate a business and have been waiting for the day iPad would replace the laptop or AIOs we use in the field. They are always connected, durable, reliable, and maintain incredible stamina when 'live'. I'm not blowing smoke as I have been extensively testing them and Air2 was the one ....even if a bit small. The 12.9" iPad Pro/256 is the best piece of gear I've ever purchased and at 1/2 the price of a MacBook Pro or Surface Pro - I'm saving money and don't have pre-event concerns about wifi access.

    My take as an S6 Edge owner and reading the two reviews of the S7, I'm happy to skip that gen of Android. While I'll still purchase a Note 6/7 or S8 - it's not for pleasure but support and knowledge ...as iOS clearly and not subtly blows Android out of the water with the perfect phone -tab/lap or desktop integration and aggregation using Handoff ....there's a continuity that exists both vertically and horizontally that can't be matched. Period.

    To argue and piss and moan about free and well written journalism is fruitless. Just. Go. Away. I can't understand why you would still be here, with the "Apple Bias" so prevalent. Like last year and the year before that, and the year....

    Serious, those of you that still enjoy Android, this is a great phone. Just maybe not as great as Gizmodo or TchCrnch reported the day after it was released ;) --- and may NOT be the best Android choice for others.
    Reply
  • Savanah - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    I heard iphone sales are an all time low. Are you suggesting Apple is still selling more iphones than Samsung is selling their Galaxy series? Reply

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